33 Variations and Humor Abuse Display Joy, Human Agony


“The sickness of the oyster,” says the old proverb, “is the pearl.” People have always known that creativity has some indefinable link with ailments and defects. Beethoven was only one of many composers to struggle with hearing deficiencies; art’s annals provide equally long lists of painters with faulty vision, dyslexic or analphabetic writers, dancers with marked physical asymmetries, and pretty much every other version you can name of artists who fought to achieve greatness in what their bodies insisted was the least feasible line of work they could choose.

Moisés Kaufman’s new 33 Variations, on Broadway, and Lorenzo Pisoni’s autobiographical solo show, Humor Abuse (MTC Stage II), both deal with art as an outgrowth of sickness, and both tell double stories: In each, the protagonist is a later arrival looking back, trying to reconcile the joy the art brings with the physical or mental weirdness that accompanied, and maybe abetted, its production. Since that process makes each protagonist undergo a personal exploration, and since the audience has to experience the art itself to comprehend what’s going on, both works are triple-layered. This density, coupled with exciting performances, gives both works an unusual richness, their glitches and shortcomings notwithstanding. Neither really gets us very deeply into the mystery that both shows explore, but both map out enough of the way there to instill a magical sense of wonder.

Kaufman’s heroine is a musicologist (Jane Fonda) whose preoccupation with Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” coincides with the onset of a wasting disease—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” In her race to complete a major monograph on the subject before the disease engulfs her, she also has to confront what might be called a complex variation on her own genetic theme: her prickly relationship with her daughter (Samantha Mathis), an artist who, lacking Beethoven’s ferocious ability to concentrate, drifts from discipline to discipline and boyfriend to boyfriend, reminding her mother painfully of the husband she jettisoned in favor of her musicology career.

Kaufman lays this material out tidily—sometimes a tad too tidily—rather than delving into it. Instead, we get an excellent live pianist (Diane Walsh) playing substantial excerpts from the 33-variation set, including some of Beethoven’s rough drafts and false starts. We get a spectacularly well-handled multimedia production: David Lander’s lighting makes the whirling panels of Derek McLane’s set glitter evocatively without impeding the clarity of Jeff Sugg’s projections. And we get a parallel narrative, in which Beethoven (Zach Grenier) agonizes over the “Variations,” to the increasing distress of his amanuensis, Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), and the publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia). This side of the play, far more musically astute than Amadeus, almost outweighs the musicologist’s story in interest, despite Fonda’s charismatic presence.

Which makes sense—the “Diabelli Variations” are odd in many ways: Deaf, gouty, in constant pain and dire financial straits, the aging Beethoven was gestating two gigantic projects, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, when the novice music publisher Diabelli sent 50 Austrian composers a little waltz he’d written, asking that they each supply one variation on it for a collection he would publish. Diabelli’s project was keyed more to marketing than to music: Fifty famous names sell way better than one. Nationalism was involved, too: The volume was eventually titled “The Fatherland’s Society of Artists.”

Only Beethoven wouldn’t play along. Instead, for nearly four years, he picked at the light, graceful, “trivial” theme, in between his wrestles with other projects, till he had twisted its notes into 33 variations instead of the requested one, repeatedly transforming it beyond recognition. What made him go to such lengths, over an ordinary commercial request involving a harmless dance tune, continues to puzzle music historians, even while his result has become a landmark of the piano repertoire. Not every pianist enjoys playing, and not every concertgoer likes hearing, the “Diabelli Variations”: Individually, each is a pianistic gem; played complete, the set can evoke a discomfiting sense of obsession. (I’ve been told of one recitalist who will only play them with his back to the audience.)

This comes through onstage, both in the dreamy, perplexed look in Fonda’s eyes as her character rails on about the work from one angle after another, and in Grenier’s growly, covetous, tetchy rendering of the composer as a musicianly miser, beautifully seconded by Steele’s stiff-jawed compassion and the smiley mask with which Amendolia covers Diabelli’s mounting fretfulness. The modern characters around Fonda, in contrast, come off as lay figures, despite the flickering fire with which Mathis imbues the daughter. What 33 Variations occasionally lacks in the writing it makes up for in the resonance between its parallel stories, in the bouncy excitement of its performance, and, most of all, in Walsh’s elegant treatment of the 88 little hammers that produce an inexplicable miracle called Beethoven.

Clowning, the art at the core of Lorenzo Pisoni’s Humor Abuse (co-created with his director, Erica Schmidt), is a more explicable miracle psychologically. But what drives a man to become a clown—and, even more, what might drive him to make his son become one—remains as puzzling as Beethoven’s fixation on the opening notes of Diabelli’s waltz. Pisoni’s piece narrates the career of his father, Larry, a/k/a “Lorenzo Pickle” of the Pickle Family Circus, interspersed with re-creations of said father’s clown routines and episodes from Lorenzo’s own glorious yet harrowing childhood as a fledgling clown, part of the act from the age of five. Pisoni’s clowning is often hilarious and his reminiscences tenderly affectionate, yet the evening’s shot through with pain, climaxing in a routine with falling sandbags that’s sheer Kafka. Pisoni, whose acting skills are as impressive as his good looks, displays in his jaw-dropping circus stunts the sheer physical grit that helped him survive this maniacal upbringing—many young actors would hesitate to perform a full back somersault in tap shoes and a gorilla mask.

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